The Nuts and Bolts of DBT Self-Soothing: Guest Post by Rachel Cooper

Please welcome Rachel Cooper and her second guest blog piece at Healing From BPD! 
From Rachel:
In my last post, (Top 10 DBT Skills for Overcoming Alexithymia & Depression (#8 is my Favorite right now!), I mentioned that I use the Self-Soothe skills from DBT’s Distress Tolerance module to help me when I’m feeling acutely distressed or dysregulated.  In this post, I’m going to break down the skill and relay some nuts and bolts strategies for using the skill in a moment of difficulty.
Self Soothing involves using the five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Utilizing this skill might involve using one (or more) of these senses to feel a sense of reprieve from the tug of distressing emotions.
I often look at pictures of people, places and things that are meaningful to me. On
my phone I keep pictures going back a year of all sorts of pleasant memories. My
screensaver on my computer is a picture of me at the beach during a recent vacation
to a warm climate.
I really like post-it notes – I like that they come in different shapes, sizes and colors
and over the last number of years I have copied my favorite quotes and sayings
on to the notes and posted them throughout my room. I find the color of the paper
soothing – particularly the pastel colors, and also my star shaped post-it notes
perfect for a smiley face or other small reminder. Post it notes are also great to keep
in your wallet or daytimer too.
Sometimes I’m too distressed to watch TV, or I feel so amped up that focusing on a
movie or TV show means that my mind races too quickly. When that happens, I have
a couple of tricks. I subscribe to a cable TV package that features the sunset channel,
the fireplace channel and the aquarium channel. All three have one stagnant picture
that changes very slowly. Watching these channels also helps with mindfulness. I
can choose to focus on the sound of the waves on the beach as the sunsets, or to
focus on a particular fish in the aquarium. Couple this channel with soothing music,
and you have a double-dose of soothing stimuli!
If you don’t have access to these TV channels, you can use the visualizer option in
your iTunes or computer music player to display different colors and shapes on
your screen. You don’t even need music for this feature to work!
Candles are my go-to for using smell to self-soothe. Take the time to find a brand or
flavor of candle (or incense) that you like. If you can’t afford to purchase a candle,
you can have explore bath and body shops that offer candles and take a trip there,
taking the time to smell all the flavors on offer.
If you live in a place where you can’t burn candles, consider getting some body mist,
body lotion or shower gel that smells enjoyable to you. You can build on this form of
self-soothing by using the great smelling product during or after a nourishing bath
or shower.
There’s something really soothing about walking into a bakery and smelling fresh
baked bread, cookies or cake. Take a trip around your local neighborhood and
browse the local bakery and enjoy the smells wafting from the oven.
I also love the smell of vanilla, and so from time to time, I will break into my supply
of vanilla extract and dab some on my wrists and neck.
One trick that real estate brokers use to sell homes is to boil some cinnamon sticks
in a pot of water on the stove on low heat. This technique diffuses the scent of the
cinnamon. I have not tried this trick myself, but I’m looking forward to doing so
when I’m settled in my own home.
There are certain foods and drinks that I really enjoy to eat and drink. Coffee is my
by far my favorite drink, and I self-soothe every morning with a freshly brewed cup
of coffee. I like to explore different cafes and try different coffee drinks and this is a
way for me to leave the house and mingle with other people and people watch.
I also like many flavors of tea. There are lots of specialty teashops where you can
sample different types of teas before purchasing. Smelling tea at these shops is also
a form of self-soothing through smell!
In terms of food, sometimes I need to balance two different skills – the Emotion
Regulation Skill PLEASE (Balance Eating) and self-soothing through taste. In order
to get the most of a particular flavor, I try to eat mindfully, savoring every bite of
whatever I’m eating. I also find that the more variety I have in the foods that I’m
using to self-soothe the less likely I am to over-indulge in any one particular food.
Touch can be a very powerful form of self-soothe, and there are endless options for
materials and textures.
The clothes that you wear are a simple but powerful way to self-soothe. I keep a
collection of favorite shirts, sweaters, pants and socks in my closet – when I feel
upset, I will put on one of my beloved items of clothing and the feeling of the clothes
against my skin instantly soothes me. Similarly, a favorite blanket or pillow can
bring much comfort too.
I’m not ashamed to admit I sleep with a stuffed animal. I bought my green, corduroy
stuffed crocodile when I was in a dark, depressive place, and during those days,
holding him and stroking his nose and tail seemed to decrease the severity of the
distress I was experiencing. Stuffed animals provide safe, healing cuddles anytime,
Hugging a trusted friend or family member can also be a great way to self-soothe – it
also helps that that person can lend a listening ear while they’re at it!
For many people water is very nourishing and soothing. Bubble baths and long,
hot showers have become a staple of my self-soothing routine. I used to think that
I needed to set aside an hour for a bath, but I’ve discovered that even 15 or 20
minutes in the tub is enough to calm me down and ground me.
A lot of people tell me that when they feel emotionally dysregulated, there is a
particular piece of music or a sound that they like to listen to. Music is very healing
for me. I have playlists for different emotions and situations, and I make a point of
keeping them updated so I don’t get bored. When I was at the beach on vacation, I
made a point of recording the sounds of the waves so that I could listen whenever I
needed a soothing sound and I play that recording back sometimes too.
Occasionally I will receive a voicemail on my answering machine that’s really
meaningful to me. Perhaps it was the timing – the right person called just at the
right moment. Maybe it was the content of the message and the caller said
something that really touched me. When I get those voicemails, I record them and
save them as an mP3 file so that I can come back and listen to them. One of the best
voicemails I ever got was from 10 years ago, when my chiropractor cousin called me
to remind me to ice and stretch a sports injury. When “Ice and Stretch” plays on my
iPod I always smile wide because it was a fantastic message to get – and catchy too!
I listen to a lot of public radio and podcasts, and believe or not, talk radio is the most
soothing sound I can think of. In fact, I fall asleep with my iPod on every night, and
sometimes wake up to it too! One of the keys to using voice for self-soothing is to
know that I’m not paying attention to what the voice is saying, just the sound of the
voice itself. This way, I don’t feel anxious about falling asleep in the middle of the
recording – I know I can listen to the content when I am more awake and focused.
And finally, sometimes I need to hear the sound of my own voice. It’s one thing to
hear my voice in my head. But it’s another thing entirely to talk to myself. In a calm
voice, I tell myself that I’m loved, I love other people, my recovery is intact and I am
a good person. Sometimes I tell myself to settle down, that everything will be ok and
that this too will eventually pass. Sometimes I sing to myself, just as toddlers will
sing to themselves as they fall asleep. Most of the time I use this self-soothing
technique, it’s very effective.
In conclusion...
It can be daunting to think about self-soothing as an effective technique to use when
in the midst of acute emotional distress. Like all other DBT skills, incorporating self-
soothing techniques into your daily routine, regardless of whether or not you feel
distressed, will help you learn and discover what feels good to you. Then, when you
experience a difficult moment, you will feel more confident about your ability to pull
a self-soothing tool out of your proverbial toolbox and use it.
Thanks for reading,
Rachel Cooper is a passionate advocate for mental health. She has participated in discussions with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and at the University of Toronto. In recovery from depression, Rachel strives to live a meaningful and balanced life. She believes that everyone is capable of learning and using coping skills to create a life worth living.   Rachel tweets @rachbcooper.


  1. Maybe I'll do this without spelling errors this time: Audiobooks and self-hypnosis phone apps (try them before buying, some are irritating to me; I like Andrew Johnson's Scottish brogue) have gotten me through many rough patches. Wax warmers instead of candles (or just warm the whole candle), and hand-work like crochet or embroidery work for me. Also, my "post it notes" are pins on Pinterest -- there all LOTS of great quotes that help me remember that I'm fine -- no matter what is happening that seems disregulating.

  2. I like andrew johnson too and mindfulness recordings for kids that I listen to with my son.

  3. This really is a handy nuts and bolts post, Rachel Cooper. Perfume or things that fragrance our new home and garden are on my mind a lot. Here's hoping for plenty of soothing days.

  4. Hi Karen,
    There are a lot of people who do fine motor activities such as needlepoint or crochet or knitting as a means of self soothing. It's also a really good distraction and keeps your hands busy!

    I know a lot of people who like pinterest to explore different interests and things - I work at a computer all day long, so at the end of the day and on weekends, I prefer to be active and doing rather than sitting.

    Keep sharing what helps you to self-soothe!
    Rachel Cooper

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Hi Nadiya,

    Thanks for your comments! Many people tell me that gardening can also be self soothing, but I'm not one to dig in the mud!
    Keep sharing what helps you to self-soothe.



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